ROBERT B. CLEMENS    Merrillville, IN
Indianapolis, IN     ATTORNEY AT LAW
    Merrillville, IN

    Raleigh, NC

    Merrillville, IN
    Indianapolis, IN

    Indianapolis, IN
    IN THE
INDIANA TAX COURT _____________________________________________________________________

UNITED STATES STEEL CORPORATION                                           )
f/k/a UNITED STATES STEEL, LLC,                                                )
    Petitioner,                                                                )
    v.                                                                         )   Cause No. 45T10-0401-TA-2
LAKE COUNTY PROPERTY TAX                                                       )
ASSESSMENT BOARD OF APPEALS                                                    )
and BOOKER BLUMENBERG, JR.,                                                    )
in his official capacity as the Calumet                                        )
Township Assessor,                                                             )    
           Respondents.                                                        )
______________________________________                                         )

f/k/a UNITED STATES STEEL, LLC,        )
    Petitioner,                )
    v.        )
    Respondent.            )    


July 26, 2004


    The Petitioner, United States Steel Corporation f/k/a United States Steel, LLC (US Steel), has appealed the final determination of the Indiana Board of Tax Review (Indiana Board) valuing its personal property for the 2000 tax year. The matter is currently before the Court on several motions regarding a settlement agreement.

US Steel owns and operates a steel manufacturing facility in Calumet Township, Lake County, Indiana. On June 14, 2000, US Steel timely filed its business personal property tax return for the 2000 assessment, reporting that its business depreciable personal property had an assessed value of $111,246,650. In arriving at that value, US
Steel’s return claimed several adjustments for abnormal obsolescence. See footnote More specifically, US Steel alleged that its business personal property suffered a loss in value due to problems resulting from its plant’s layout (including “bottlenecking”) and underutilization.
    On September 19, 2000, the Calumet Township Assessor (Assessor) sent a notice to US Steel in which it disallowed US Steel’s claims for abnormal obsolescence. As a result, the Assessor reinstated the assessed value reported by US Steel for the previous year -- $288,700,000.
US Steel subsequently appealed to the Lake County Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals (PTABOA). On March 9, 2001, after conducting an administrative hearing on the matter, the PTABOA issued a final determination in which it upheld the Assessor’s disallowance of US Steel’s claims for abnormal obsolescence. The PTABOA also disallowed an adjustment claimed by US Steel for permanently retired
assets. See footnote (See Pet’r V.Pet. for Judicial Review of a Final Determination of the Indiana Board of Tax Review at 6 (footnote added).) As a result, the PTABOA determined that for the 2000 tax year, the assessed value of US Steel’s business personal property was approximately $307,000,000.
US Steel timely appealed the PTABOA’s final determination to the Indiana Board. On April 10, 2002, the Indiana Board consolidated US Steel’s appeal with a preliminary determination made by the Department of Local Government Finance (DLGF), also regarding US Steel’s 2000 personal property tax return. See footnote The Indiana Board conducted an administrative hearing on the matters See footnote and, on December 4, 2003, issued a final determination disallowing US Steel’s claimed obsolescence adjustments. The Indiana Board did, however, allow US Steel an adjustment on its permanently retired assets.
    On January 16, 2004, US Steel initiated an original tax appeal. While the case has been pending, US Steel and the PTABOA (by the Lake County Assessor who is the secretary of the PTABOA) arrived at a settlement agreement (Agreement). The Assessor, however, opposes the Agreement.
    On June 2, 2004, the PTABOA filed a motion with the Court requesting that it approve the Agreement despite the Assessor’s opposition. On June 23, 2004, the Assessor filed its motion asking the Court to reject the Agreement. The Court conducted a hearing on those motions on July 1, 2004. Additional facts will be supplied as necessary.

    The PTABOA is before the Court on its motion requesting this Court to approve the Agreement. The PTABOA claims that the Tax Court should approve the Agreement because “(1) all the statutory parties to this appeal have signed the [] Agreement, (2) the [] Agreement is fair, just and in the public interest, and (3) [the Assessor] has no authority to obstruct a settlement which has been approved by [the PTABOA].” (Resp’t PTABOA’s Br. In Supp. of Its Pet. to Confirm [] Agreement at 6.) The Assessor, on the other hand, claims that the Tax Court should reject the Agreement because
(1.) the Court does not have subject matter jurisdiction over the Agreement; (2.) [the PTABOA] does not have standing to seek approval of the Agreement; (3.) [the PTABOA] is not the real party in interest; (4.) the terms and conditions of the Agreement violate [his] due course of law and due process of law [rights as provided in] the Indiana and U.S. Constitutions; (5.) the Agreement contravenes public policy; (6.) [the PTABOA’s] arguments and contentions for approval of the Agreement are barred by the equitable doctrines of waiver, laches, estoppel and judicial estoppel; (7.) the terms and conditions of the Agreement violate [his] Equal Protection and Equal Privileges [rights as provided in] the Indiana and U.S. Constitutions, and (8.) the terms and conditions of the Agreement violate [his] First Amendment [rights as provided in] Article I, § 9 of the Indiana and U.S. Constitutions.

(Resp’t Calumet Township Assessor Br. Opposing Approval [] of the [] Agreement at 22.) While the PTABOA and the Assessor have extensively briefed their positions, the Court believes the determining issue is whether the Assessor is a necessary, or indispensable, party to the case.
    Under Indiana Trial Rule 19, an indispensable party is one who, if not joined as a party to the action, “complete relief cannot be accorded among those already parties[.]” Ind. Trial Rule 19(A)(1). Alternatively, an indispensable party is one who is so situated that the disposition of the action in his absence may either “impair or impede his ability to protect his interest [relating to the subject of the action], or [] leave any of the persons already parties subject to a substantial risk of incurring double, multiple, or otherwise inconsistent obligations by reasons of his claimed interest.” T.R. 19(A)(2). See also Black’s Law Dictionary at 1154 (8th ed. 2004) (stating that an indispensable party is “[a] party who, having interests that would inevitably be affected by a court’s judgment, must be included in [a] case. If such party is not included, the case must be dismissed”).
    When US Steel initiated its original tax appeal, it did so pursuant to Indiana Code § 6-1.1-15-5. That statute, in relevant part, provides that
[a] person may petition for judicial review of the final determination of the Indiana Board regarding the assessment of [its] tangible property. The action shall be taken to the tax court under IC 4-21.5-5. . . . A township assessor, county assessor, member of a county property tax assessment board of appeals, or county property tax assessment board of appeals that made the original assessment determination under appeal . . . is a party to the [judicial review] to defend the determination.

Ind. Code Ann. § 6-1.1-15-5(b) (West Supp. 2003). Similarly, Indiana Tax Court Rule 4 provides that “[i]n original tax appeals initiated by taxpayers, the named respondent shall be as follows: . . . the local governmental official or entity that made the original assessment valuation, exemption determination, or other determination under the tax laws that was the subject of the proceedings before the Indiana Board of Tax Review.” Ind. Tax Court Rule 4(B)(2)(a). Thus, Indiana Code § 6-1.1-15-5 and Indiana Tax Court Rule 4 necessarily define an indispensable party, under Trial Rule 19(A), in the context of tax appeals such as this one: it is the entity that made the original assessment valuation that was the subject of the Indiana Board’s review.
    In the case at bar, the PTABOA is the indispensable party. Indeed, because the PTABOA completely refigured US Steel’s assessment from the $288,700,000 figure set by the Assessor to $307,000,000, it was the PTABOA’s assessment determination that was the subject of US Steel’s appeal to the Indiana Board. See A.I.C. § 6-1.1-15-5(b); Tax.Ct. R. 4(B)(2)(a).
    Nevertheless, US Steel joined the Assessor as a party to the case. “[While m]isjoinder of parties is not ground for dismissal of an action[,] . . . [s]ubject to its sound discretion and on motion of any party or of its own initiative, [a] court may order parties dropped or added at any stage of the action and on such terms as are just and will avoid delay.” Ind. Trial Rule 21(A). See also Ind. Tax Court Rule 1 (stating that Indiana’s Rules of Trial Procedure apply to actions in the Tax Court).
    The judicial policy of Indiana strongly favors settlement agreements. Klebes v. Forest Lake Corp., 607 N.E.2d 978, 982 (Ind. Ct. App. 1993) (citation omitted), trans. denied. Settlements allow our courts to operate more efficiently and, equally important, allow the parties to fashion the outcome of their disputes through mutual agreement. Natare Corp. v. Aquatic Renovation Sys., Inc., 987 F.Supp. 695, 700 (S.D. Ind. 1997). Here, US Steel and the PTABOA, the two essential parties to this litigation, have resolved their conflict through mutual agreement. It is improper for the Assessor, the “non-essential” party to the case, to impede and hinder that resolution. See id. at 697 (stating that a settlement agreement is a contract between the parties to the litigation).
    Furthermore, while a township governmental unit has a broad grant of power to conduct its local affairs under Indiana’s Home Rule Act, “[it] may not exercise [its] power . . . if another unit in which all or part of the township is located exercises that same power.” See Ind. Code Ann. § 36-1-3-5(b) (West 2004). See also Ind. Code Ann. §§ 36-1-3-2, -4(b) (West 2004). This suggests that within the administrative realm of assessing Indiana property, there is a hierarchy of assessment officials based on their jurisdictional territories; in other words, township assessors may be “trumped” by county assessors and county assessors may be “trumped” by the Indiana Board. See also Lentz v. Trs. of Indiana Univ., 221 N.E.2d 883, 884 (Ind. 1966) (stating that township and county assessors were, in relation to the Indiana Board’s predecessor, the State Board, “inferior representatives of the state”).
    When the PTABOA became involved in US Steel’s appeal - i.e., its March 9, 2001, final determination revising US Steel’s assessment – the Assessor became the “inferior” governmental official. Indeed, the Assessor’s powers with respect to his assessment duties extend to only those properties within Calumet Township. In contrast, the powers of the Lake County Assessor and PTABOA with respect to their assessment duties extend to a much larger jurisdictional base: all of Lake County’s eleven townships, including Calumet Township. Consequently, while the Assessor can really only be concerned with the terms of the Agreement in relation to how they affect Calumet Township, the Lake County Assessor and PTABOA are concerned with the terms of the Agreement in relation to how they affect the interests of Lake County, which includes Calumet Township. The decision of the PTABOA, therefore, “trumps” that of the Assessor with respect to whether or not the terms of the Agreement are acceptable. See footnote


    For the foregoing reasons, this Court now orders, pursuant to Indiana Trial Rule 21, that the Assessor be dropped as a party to this case. The Assessor’s motion is therefore rendered moot. See footnote Nevertheless, to the extent that this Court refrains from approving or rejecting the specific terms of the Agreement, the PTABOA’s motion is DENIED.See footnote Rather, should the remaining parties to the action choose to pursue their settlement, they must file a joint stipulation of dismissal of the action with the Court. Otherwise, the matter will proceed on its merits.

SO ORDERED this 26th day of July, 2004.

                                    Thomas G. Fisher, Judge
                                    Indiana Tax Court


Thomas M. Atherton
Ronald M. Soskin
Robert B. Clemens
David A. Suess
2700 First Indiana Plaza
135 North Pennsylvania Street
Indianapolis, IN 46204

Brian P. Popp     
200 East 80th Place, Suite 200
Post Office Box 10794
Merrillville, IN 46410
John S. Dull
8300 Broadway, Suite G-1
Merrillville, IN 46410

Charles C. Meeker
150 Fayetteville Street Mall, Suite 1400
Post Office Box 389
Raleigh, NC 27602

Dock McDowell, Jr.
7895 Broadway, Suite D
Chapel Plaza
Merrillville, IN 46410

Steve Carter
By: Ted J. Holaday
Deputy Attorney General
Indiana Government Center South, Fifth Floor
402 West Washington Street
Indianapolis, IN 46204

Heather Scheel
Department of Local Government Finance
Indiana Government Center North
100 N. Senate Avenue
Indianapolis, IN 46204

Indiana Board of Tax Review
100 N. Senate Avenue
Room N-1058(A)
Indianapolis, IN 46204

Footnote: The Indiana assessment manual in effect for the 2000 tax year defines obsolescence as “the reduction in value of business personal property that occurs through use, technological improvements, passage of time, changes in market values, and physical deterioration or destruction.” Ind. Admin. Code tit. 50, r. 4.2-9-1 (1996). “Normal obsolescence” is “the anticipated or expected reduction in the value of business personal property that can be foreseen by a reasonable, prudent businessman when property is acquired and placed into service.” Ind. Admin. Code tit. 50, r. 4.2-9-2 (1996). “Abnormal obsolescence,” on the other hand, “occurs as a result of factors over which the taxpayer has no control and is unanticipated, unexpected, and cannot reasonably be foreseen by a prudent businessman prior to the occurrence.” Ind. Admin. Code tit. 50, r. 4.2-9-3 (1996). Abnormal obsolescence is “strictly construed and [] limited to a situation where unforeseen changes in market values, exceptional technological obsolescence, or destruction by catastrophe occurs, providing that such events have a direct effect upon the valuation of the depreciable personal property of the taxpayer on a going concern basis at the tax situs in question.” Ind. Admin. Code tit. 50, r. 4.2-4-8(c) (1996).

Footnote: The PTABOA’s disallowance of the adjustment for permanently retired assets had not been raised as an issue by either US Steel or the Assessor.

Footnote: More specifically, the State Board of Tax Commissioners (State Board) had notified US Steel during the summer of 2000 that it planned to “review and reassess” US Steel’s business personal property for the 2000 assessment. Approximately three months later, the State Board issued findings (i.e., preliminary determination) in which it, too, disallowed several of US Steel’s claimed adjustments. US Steel appealed this preliminary determination to the State Board in November of 2001.
The State Board, however, was abolished as of December 31, 2001. 2001 Ind. Acts 198 § 119(b)(2). Consequently, jurisdiction over US Steel’s appeal of the State Board’s preliminary determination was transferred to the Indiana Board of Tax Review. See Ind. Code Ann. § 6-1.5-1-3 (West Supp. 2003)(eff. 1-1-02); 2001 Ind. Acts 198 § 95. In addition, the Department of Local Government Finance (DLGF) was substituted for the State Board as the Respondent. See Ind. Code Ann. § 6-1.5-5-8 (West Supp. 2003)(eff. 1-1-02); 2001 Ind. Acts 198 § 95.

During the administrative hearing before the Indiana Board, the Assessor did not present an argument, call any witnesses, or cross any witnesses. (See Resp’t PTABOA’s Br. In Supp. of Its Pet. to Confirm [] Agreement at Ex. D at 5355-56.) Rather, he made the following opening statement only:

[I] concur in the comments delivered and made here today by [the PTABOA]. Further, [I] have filed a request that [I] be permitted to join in the prehearing brief that was filed by Lake County. [I] agree in many respects; in fact, in all respects with the assessment, the arguments, the contentions that have been delivered and will be delivered by Lake County in this case.

(Resp’t PTABOA’s Br. In Supp. of Its Pet. to Confirm [] Agreement at Ex. D at 4228.)

Footnote: The Assessor argues that the application of the Home Rule Act to this case “is not a sensible view” because the Calumet Township Assessor, and not Calumet Township, has been named a party to the action. (Resp’t Calumet Township Assessor Br. Opposing Approval [] of the [] Agreement at 20.) The Assessor is apparently confused by semantics. Indiana Trial Rule 19 provides that “[s]uits naming a governmental representative by his official title or by his name along with his official title shall be deemed to name and include the governmental organization which he represents[.]” Ind. Trial Rule 19(F)(1).

Footnote: Because the Assessor is no longer a party to this action, it is unnecessary for the Court to address his various constitutional claims. In any event, the Court notes that several of these rights are not conferred upon instrumentalities of the State. See Marion County Bd. of Review v. State Bd. of Tax Comm’rs, 516 N.E.2d 1129, 1131 (Ind. Tax Ct. 1987). Thus, the Assessor has no individual constitutional rights with respect to the valuation of US Steel’s tangible personal property. See id. See also Fadell v. Kovacik, 181 N.E.2d 228, 230 (Ind. 1962) (stating that a township assessor has no private or personal interest in fixing assessments, nor any interests as a township assessor, other than that what the State ultimately has).

Footnote: Indeed, it is the county assessing officials and US Steel who are in a better position to determine/gauge whether the benefits to, and obligations of, the parties as a result of the Agreement are acceptable.